Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Visionaries and fools

I have written here before about Galileo, in particular his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in which he inhabits intellectual territory hundreds of years ahead of his time. He was a foundational scientist because he was at the same time an adept constructor of apparatus, a clever experimenter, an accomplished mathematician, and an intuitively brilliant theoretician. Nowadays we generally have a division of labor among these roles. In that sense, perhaps, there will never be another Galileo.

Paula Findlen, in The Nation, reviews two new biographies of Galileo, by John L. Heilbron and David Wootton. The main difference in their evaluation of this person for the ages is the extent to which he may have abandoned faith. Of course he had no choice but to make an outward appearance of piety. The question is whether he ultimately concluded that religion was not consistent with reason. (His public statement on this question, in Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, was very much like modern accomodationism: that they occupy separate realms and concern separate kinds of truth. Read Pharyngula [link in the side bar] if you want to hear this notion repudiated on a semi-daily basis.)

My feeling from the Dialogue is that he could not possibly have accepted Christian doctrine. He considered the universe to be infinite and to have no center; and he also demonstrated that he was aware of the earth's great antiquity, although no doubt he greatly underestimated it just as he underestimated the distance to the stars. But it is difficult even for us who have actual knowledge of the vastness and age of the universe to comprehend it. In any event, Galileo was rational enough to know that without the creation myth and the garden and the fall, indeed without there being anything special about the earth and humanity, Christian theology is nonsensical. Yet today, many people happily accept the doublethink needed to avoid this conclusion.

But all this is just by way of getting to real point, about Rick Santorum, who has recently compared himself to Galileo. Santorum's idea is that he, Rick Santorum, is sufficiently wise and courageous to recognize that anthropogenic global warming, which he sees as a religious doctrine, is false, and to say so publicly; and that like Galileo, he will be vindicated by history.

That is quite amusing. The theory of global warming is not, of course, a religious belief. It is a conclusion based on understanding of the climate system and an immense body of direct observation. And the scientists who study climate are not threatening to burn Rick Santorum at the stake, nor, unlike the Pope, do they have the power to do so. Galileo, in the end, had no taste for martyrdom, and not wanting to suffer the fate of Giordano Bruno, famously recanted. But the only fate Santorum will suffer for what he would like to think of as heresy is to see Texas made into a desert and Florida beneath the sea. That's a lot fewer Republican voters to pander to.

No comments: